31 October 2009

Halloween Special

The temporary house shocked me yesterday. Plus there was the cockroach.

We're ready to move into the new house.

25 October 2009

Inching Forward

This week we had a meeting with R and our designer to make the final changes to the plans. There ended up being quite a few changes (nothing major), and we're still waiting on the final plans to get to the lender for an appraisal. We are also waiting for R's last revised bids from his subs so we can get a final number and sign on the dotted line. We continue to look for ideas and went on a pretty good home tour and terrific garden tour this weekend.

In other news, I set a PR (personal record) in the Livestrong 5k yesterday. Unfortunately, it wasn't a 5k PR because it wasn't really a 5k. I ran the first mile (downhill) in about 7:30, which I decided to adjust to 7:10 because of congestion at the start, but that ended up being irrelevant because I finished the second (uphill) mile in about 6:30 and the final 1.1 mile in another 6:30ish, which tells me that the course was far from true (the fastest mile I've ever run in my life was 6:46, so there's no way I did two miles under 6:30 pace). I would guess it was somewhere around 4.2 kilometers -- a distance I've never raced (hence the "PR"). I shouldn't be irritated at the Livestrong organization, who raised about $4 million for cancer research and support through the run and today's ride, but I am. Their 5ks the last two years have been great, and this one didn't live up.

19 October 2009


It felt like breaking up with that nice guy in high school who did nothing wrong except fall in love with a girl who didn't appreciate his love, but it's done.

We're now down to just R. Which feels great.

Wednesday we're meeting him and our designer (they've worked together many times before, which is also part of the appeal of R, although it was G who referred us to her). We'll be making the last (I hope) changes to the plans and are getting closer to a final number. R suggested yesterday that we might be able to sign a contract this week, but I think that's optimistic. We're still working on wood flooring (finished on-site, which is oh-so-lovely, versus pre-finished, which is more affordable and still nice, but...), a final cabinet number, interior doors, and a good bit more. And the Saga of the Water Heater continues. And we still need to meet with our lawyer. So it's more likely that the contract won't be signed until sometime next week, but hopefully we'll have plans printed and to the lender so they can start working on the appraisal this week. (I hope we don't get caught up in the backlog of all of the first-time homebuyers trying to close by the end of November for the $8,000 tax credit.)

17 October 2009

One Marathon At a Time

Many triathletes default to running during the off season, and the last two years, I've been no exception. I've relaxed my race schedule this winter but have been planning to run the 3M half marathon in January. However, between working on the house and longer hours at work (I was recently promoted to general counsel for a subagency of my employer), I've only been running a few miles a week, and I was dreading the long runs that would be necessary to work up to 13.1. So today I decided on a different plan for this winter.

The 5k.

I'm not generally one to put my goals out there, but this time I will. I'd like to break 21 minutes in a 5k by the end of the season. At my peak last year I ran a 21:55; after easing up my training, I ran a pretty comfortable (probably too comfortable) 24:05 recently. So I'm going to try to find a 5k each month (not hard in Austin) with the goal of being back under 22 minutes by February and under 21 by April. I don't know how realistic that is. I'm basically a slow runner who has pushed the limits the last couple of years. But I refuse to believe that my 21:55 was the absolute fastest I could have run (despite nearly losing my breakfast at the finish line), so we'll see how much more speed I can find. First step: next weekend's Livestrong Challenge 5k in downtown Austin.

Oh, and for those of you whom I told I'd run 3M if you were going to...um, change of plans. But I'll be there cheering for you around mile 6 and will even bring you whatever food and/or beverage you want!

14 October 2009

What's One Level Better Than the Best?

I've mentioned that our awesome neighbor John's tree lost several large branches on our lot in a recent storm. I e-mailed him last night (he was nice enough to give us a list of contact information for all of the neighbors) to let him know that, if he was planning to have an arborist clean up the broken limbs on the tree, we would be happy to pay for removal of the remaining branch that is still hanging over our lot. He responded that he was already planning to do that, and by this evening, tree trimmers were there taking care of it.

We're meeting R again on Sunday to take a look at some things he's doing on a remodel he's working on. We've also been trying to pin down some of our cosmetic selections (tile, countertops, etc.). I don't know how far we are from hammering out a final price or a contract, though.

We broke up with one of the other builders today. The easy one. I always feel like we're the first people in the history of business to decide not to use a given person/company, but obviously we're not, and they all seem to have developed a formulaic gracious response -- "thanks for considering us, good luck with the one you did choose, and let us know if we can help you in the future." (I guess that's only fair, since I write pretty formulaic "We've decided to go another direction, we appreciate your efforts, it was a pleasure working with you" break-up notes.) This time, the builder also added, "R is a great guy and will build you a great house," so that was nice.

Oh, and the water heater is up in the air again. R is looking into prices. We had thought solar water heaters were really pricey, but with city and federal rebates, that might be the way to go -- which would be really fun since I grew up with a solar water heater, so it would be like going back to my roots.

12 October 2009

Getting Closer

We met with R again this evening. He thought one of his current projects would be a good model for some of the issues we needed to discuss, so we met there. We ended up spending another 2 hours at that house, looking at its features and discussing our plans and his bid. During the day, R had talked his foundation subcontractor down by $.30/foot (about $1,000) and had gotten bids on the specific plumbing fixtures I had sent to him, which totaled about $2,500 less than the figure he had put in his bid. (Builders get tremendous discounts on all sorts of things. The fabulous Kohler sink we found retails for $413, but his price is $248.) We were thrilled that he is being so proactive about helping us bring the total down. He is also going to get another electrical bid from another company, and we discussed removing some recessed lights from our plans to save some more there.

We also settled on a water heater. We had originally thought we'd have a tankless water heater (two, actually -- one on each side of the house), since they have gotten so much attention for their energy efficiency, but recently there's been a movement toward other options. Unfortunately, most of these options are really expensive, and given our constraints, we've been at a loss to find a good compromise. Well, now I think we've got it. General Electric is about to introduce a heat pump water heater (technology that's been around for a while, but finally incorporated into a mainstream all-in-one unit). Basically, it uses a heat pump to extract heat from the air around it and then transfers the heat to the water, with an electric element as backup/supplement. I can't really do it justice, but you can read about it on the GE website. Since the kitchen is halfway across the house and two of the bathrooms are all the way across the house, we'll have an on-demand (push button) recirculating pump to ensure that we're never wasting water while waiting for the water to heat up. Saving power and water!

Note from the future: We thought we had finally settled on a water heater, but we had not. Read more about other options we considered, and how we ended up using a plain old electric water heater in a very energy-efficient way here and here.

10 October 2009

Big Day

We began a busy weekend this morning around 7:45, when we headed out on a bike ride. On the way home we stopped by the lot. (Of course we did -- we probably visit the lot 10 times a week. Fortunately, or unfortunately, it's a mile and a half from our current place and pretty much on my way to and from work.) We've had more rain this week, and a storm Thursday night apparently brought down three huge branches of a tree in our next door neighbor's front yard, which pretty much all landed on our lot. We've been concerned about trees in both neighbors' yards because some of their branches are right where our roof trusses will go and others stretch across the property line and, if not removed, would be above parts of the house. So we feel like we dodged a bullet with those branches falling before the house is built, and when we drove by this evening (I swear, 10 times a week), our neighbor, John, already had a truck there picking up the branches -- before we even had a chance to take a picture! John's the best.

After our bike ride, we rushed home to shower and get ready for R to come by to discuss his bid. Which was more than we had hoped but less than we had feared. Actually, since his bid seemed to have much more realistic numbers for allowances, it's probably pretty much in line with what we would actually have to pay for a house built by either of the other builders. But boy, that was one big bottom line. We're going to work with him and with our designer to refine the plans and bring the total down a little -- and then just close our eyes and jump, I guess.

Next week it will finally be time to break up with our other suitors. Although I'm not looking forward to doing it, I'm glad to be at that point. One of them will be easy. Since most of our communication has been by e-mail, and since he never really took the initiative in bringing us ideas or thinking about solutions to some of our issues, a simple e-mail letting him know we're going with someone else will suffice. The other one will be harder. He's a really nice, eager guy and a top quality builder who, in this economy, may really need the work, and he got really involved in helping us with ideas. I'm going to call him (which is going to be awful -- I never know what to say in this kind of situation) and then follow up with a note. Once that's done, though, I'll feel a lot better about where we are and will focus on moving forward with R.

Anyway, today's progress still leaves lots to be done before we can break ground. We need solid plans and a revised foundation plan, plus a meeting with our lawyer, before we can sign a contract, and we need a contract before we can get final approval for our interim financing (which also requires an appraisal based on the plans), and we need financing in place before any work can start. Unfortunately, it's become a race to begin construction before we leave for Hawaii in five weeks...and I think Hawaii may win.

08 October 2009

How to Post Comments

I've gotten some feedback that this is tricky.

If you click on the comments link below the post you want to comment on, you just type your comments into the box and then choose "anonymous" or "name/URL." If you choose "name/URL," you can just type in your name; you don't need to list a URL.

Got the Permit, Part II

The city has deemed us fit to build.

Now there's just the small matter of pinning down a builder....

03 October 2009

Can't Get Enough Demolition

I've been trying for a while to post a particularly exciting demolition video, but for some reason it won't upload. I've finally given up and instead give you this one, which is pretty cool. (The tree in the foreground was removed in two swift bites as the excavator rolled off of the truck.)

This week wrapped up with some good news on the property tax front. Our protest resulted in a reduction in value of almost $40,000. (Because the fire occurred after January 1, when values are set, it wasn't a basis for reducing the appraisal, but we succeeded in establishing that the house was overvalued even before the fire.) Taking into account some quirks in the way our exemptions apply this year, that translates to about a $600 reduction in the 2009 taxes. Not bad for two brief visits to the appraisal district office.

01 October 2009

This and That

I think things are starting to come together. Our yard work at the new house is going well.

Not really; these are our next door neighbor's oleander and roses. All of the blooms are conveniently on our side of the fence. We have been dutifully watering two hibiscus plants (altheas), but I think one was too far gone when we started, and while the other has perked up, it doesn't have any flowers yet.

While it remains to be seen how well we can keep plants alive, I am proving pretty adept at making dead stuff deader. This morning, as I was turning my compost pile, my finger accidentally brushed the pile (eew!), and it was really warm. That means it's working. Our secret ingredient is really doing the trick. (Bunny poops.)

We have also gotten some decent grass growing back in the front yard, and I expect it to continue as we get more rain. (There's more than it looks like, but I didn't have an airplane for an aerial shot. For a reminder of how dead the grass was right after demolition in August, click here.)

On the permit front, I made some good progress today. I got e-mail from our reviewer saying that, upon further reflection, we are only missing two things on our plans, instead of the 15 things he had said last week (which had included a pricey topographic survey). Our designer added the two things in a matter of minutes, and I e-mailed the new site plan to the reviewer. And so the waiting begins again, and other issues may arise before our application is approved, but at least we've moved the ball further up the field. The reviewer also told us that we passed flood plain review. Since we're currently living in a house that would have been torn down (to build a fabulous new house) had the property not failed flood plain review, it's nice to know that we've passed that hurdle on our project.